Psst. Wanna read a well-written, entertaining book? It’s filled with amazingly detailed descriptions of surroundings and dialogue from exciting events going back many years. It reads like zippy fiction.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid that’s what this book essentially is: fiction.
It’s The Metabolife Story: The Rape of Cinderella, by Mike Ellis, one of three owners of the former multilevel marketer of diet pills containing ephedra, banned in 2004 by the Food and Drug Administration after it was linked with 155 deaths. In 2005, Metabolife pleaded guilty to filing false income tax returns and declared bankruptcy. The 414-page book is self-published and available through M.J. Ellis Publishing (themjellisgroup.com) for $24.95 plus $4.95 shipping and handling. The gist is that Metabolife International had an absolutely safe product and chaste accounting, and the Food and Drug Administration, Internal Revenue Service, and Department of Justice conspired to destroy the company through illegal and unethical tactics, punishing its three undebauched owner/managers for transgressions they did not commit. That thesis is simply not credible.
After reading the book, I had a long interview with Ellis, who recently got out of prison, where he served six months for making false statements about the diet pill’s safety. I conferred with the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Justice and talked with the Reader’s Matt Potter, who, like me, has covered this story for around a decade.
Ellis cites many villains in his adventure, but the most damnable one is Phil Halpern, assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego. Over 23 years, Halpern has been a major prosecutor in many of San Diego’s most high-profile criminal cases: Randy (Duke) Cunningham, Brent Wilkes, Kyle (Dusty) Foggo, of recent vintage. “A federal prosecutor is not engaged in a popularity contest seeking approval of those he indicts, convicts, and imprisons,” says Halpern. “I’m sure that if you talked to any of the scores of federal felons I have prosecuted and that find themselves in prison, I wouldn’t be voted their best friend.”
The book excoriates Halpern over and over again. Each time, the name is misspelled: “H-a-l-p-r-i-n.”
And that brings us to a crucial question: Who wrote this book? I asked Ellis how in the world he could remember every word of lengthy interlocutions from years ago and how he could reconstruct talk that had taken place when he wasn’t there. The book is structured like a novel, filled with informal dialogue that one doesn’t see in nonfiction. “I did have a writer who helped me get the grammar so I didn’t look like a complete idiot,” says Ellis. “We worked together on the outline, the way it was laid out.” Still, Ellis insists, “He was not a ghostwriter. This was almost all my work.” He would not identify the writer who helped him, and the book does not refer to any editorial assistant.
Ellis describes his lifelong best friend, Mike Blevins, as an upstanding person. In 1988, the two were arrested for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine from a house in Rancho Santa Fe. Blevins got five and a half years in prison and Ellis got five years on probation. Blevins did it to raise money for his ailing mother, claims Ellis. Why did Ellis do it? “Stupidity,” he says. Ellis says Blevins’s father set them up in a government sting so he could get a lighter sentence for his own drug transgressions.
According to a Reader story by Matt Potter in 1999, federal court records showed that the senior Blevins and his son had dealt cocaine together. Drug Enforcement Administration records showed that Michael Blevins and another person were arrested in early 1975 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. The charge was dismissed. Cocaine money went into real estate deals Michael Blevins had in Otay Mesa, according to federal prosecutors. By the early 1980s, Michael Blevins was hanging out with a reputed Chicago mobster who headed a large-scale narcotics operation, said Potter’s story. In 1973, Michael Blevins was charged with battery on a police officer. One charge of cocaine distribution was reduced to possession. In mid-1975, he got a three-year suspended sentence and a year of probation.
Ellis claims he doesn’t know about most of those misdeeds. But why did Blevins get a long sentence for the meth-lab crime and Ellis only get probation? “Mike had things in his past,” says Ellis.
By the mid-1990s, Ellis, Blevins, and one Robert Bradley owned Metabolife, and all got rich as Metabolife became one of the world’s largest purveyors of diet supplements. In mid-2002, the Internal Revenue Service, suspecting tax fraud, raided the office of the company’s accountant, Michael Compton, and the Rancho Santa Fe Farms home of Blevins. In November of the following year, the affidavit for the search warrant was unsealed. That affidavit revealed that Compton admitted he had traveled with Bradley and Ellis to set up offshore accounts and trusts. With Compton’s blessings, the company kept two sets of books. Compton had inquired of another person if he would be criminally liable if he knew that corporate tax returns had not reported cash that had come into the company. He was told he would be.
Ten days after the affidavit was unsealed, Compton committed suicide. Here’s how Ellis spins it in the book: The IRS discovered Compton had lied on forms when purchasing a home. Therefore, the agency threatened that it would get his accounting license yanked unless he told lies about Bradley committing fraud. There follows more than a page of presumably exact dialogue as Compton tells Bradley over the phone what the IRS wants him to do: “They’re asking me to lie about you,” the book quotes Compton complaining to Bradley, “…that you embezzled money from Metabolife.” And on and on.
“Mr. Ellis’s flight of fancy is comical,” says Halpern, pointing out that neither Compton nor his attorney ever raised a single claim suggesting any type of improper conduct by the government.
Ellis’s book stresses that neither he nor Blevins was charged with tax fraud. True, but Metabolife itself and Bradley pleaded guilty to several counts of tax fraud. Metabolife admitted not reporting more than $1 million of income in 1997 and 1998. Those false tax returns had been prepared by Compton. Bradley, the company bean counter, created off-the-book accounts and a web of shell companies. Bradley subsequently got six months for tax evasion. Halpern argued that he should get more than that because of his use of offshore tax and secrecy havens.
Ellis claims the affidavit was completely false. Nonsense, says Halpern, pointing out that the case was thoroughly contested in court and Ellis was unable to show that there were any problems with the affidavit whatsoever. No evidence was excluded, and the affidavit eventually led to multiple tax convictions. Moreover, affidavits to support a search warrant do not constitute proof. I reported on that affidavit for the Reader as soon as it was unsealed; I can personally attest that the language was properly hedged. The government wasn’t making charges. It said it had reason to believe that income had been skimmed, not reported, and in some cases stashed.
Other parts of this book stretch credulity. One employee, important in the company’s medical claims, turned out not to be a nurse practitioner as he had said. But he had told some other whoppers (participation in a famous Super Bowl play, being one of the first six employees of Microsoft) that should have been a tip-off. Both this employee and an in-house psychiatrist used drugs and nobody knew it, presumably. Ellis claims that on a trip to China, he discovered herbal medicines that could “eliminate indigestion in five minutes…wipe out PMS pains…cure migraine headaches in ten minutes…[provide] instantaneous cold relief.” Wow. Ellis argues that ephedra is safe and effective, but material I received from the Food and Drug Administration makes a convincing case that the herb is dangerous. Claims the book, “I received six months for presiding over a company that employed a man who in error wrote a false statement and submitted it to the FDA. I never even knew about that statement.” But that is a gross oversimplification.
And Ellis denies that he knows anything about Bradley’s close association with Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Ellis displays humility. He feels sorry for his friends who were “drug through the knothole with me.” Apt verb: drug.